Sabrina Harman giving a thumbs up over the body of al-Zarqawi.
England's eyes go screen left.
England's eyes go screen right.
England looks directly at us: "It was OK."
The pyramid as seen from above.
England points to the lone masturbator.
This paper asks how such images of death and torture are literally and metaphorically framed by the people who take them and how they are further received through this framing by the publics who see them. In the Abu Ghraib photos, soldiers seem to crow over the very body they have killed. In contrast, at the press conference showing off the body of al-Zarqawi, the general who presents the framed images claims to have refrained from the same kind of public spectacles of prisoners’ deaths that al-Zarqawi himself had indulged in. Yet both photos are manipulated, and both show bodies that have been cleaned up and sealed off by the frame that limits what we see.
Judith Butler writes that “if there is a critical role for visual culture during times of war it is precisely to thematize the forcible frame, the one that conducts the dehumanizing norm.” [open endnotes in new window] I argue that Standard Operating Procedure deserves much more scrutiny than it has received precisely for its investigation of the frame.
The first thing to note about Morris’s presentation of these familiar images is that unlike the versions that appeared in newspapers, on television, or in any of the Web sites that contain them, the ones here are fastidiously framed by uniform, digitally created white borders. Though not as ostentatious as the ornate wooden frames that contained the al-Zarqawi headshots, they seem unnecessary in a digital age. They call attention to the work of presentation that the film performs in framing them and invite us to consider what kind of witnessing they constitute.
From the early credits sequence on, Morris’s neat white borders refuse to concentrate our attention; rather, they disperse it over an ever-widening, digitally produced canvas. These photographs—which both repel and pruriently attract and which at first seem like prima facie evidence of crimes—become elusive in their sheer profusion as they recede and are crowded out by ever more framed photos.
Morris offers something much more valuable than the moral clarity of victims and villains, bad apples and perverted soldiers caught in the act . He offers the mind-set of the framers of these acts and the deepest answer to the question, “What is it that’s going on here?” The answer, we will learn, is not only to be found in what is visible inside the frame but in the convergence of further reflexively augmented frames:
Standard Operating Procedure has been much criticized, particularly by critics who would prefer Morris to point the finger toward actual culprits rather than investigate the literal framework of the given photos. What the film does do, through the device of its Interrotron is enable the U.S. witnesses and participants in these events to do what they cannot in other documentaries: to look their interviewer and thus us directly in the eye. Unlike many other documentary filmmakers, our interviewer-director is literally out of the picture, a source of unease to many documentary scholars who believe that the observer of documentary evidence should at least partly participate in the scene he or she observes. The trade-off is that as viewers we see the interviewees’ eye movements and facial gestures as they encounter or resist encountering Morris’s own face and eyes in the lens that films them.
Consider the eyes of Lyndie England. She explains her routine at the prison, how when a great many prisoners were admitted she would work long shifts, get a few hours of sleep, and then return to work. These restless reframings keep us alert to any changes in her demeanor. For example, when England on the right side of the screen describes the stress positions, squats, and runs up and down tiers that prisoners were subjected to, the camera makes a kind of blink that results in a black screen after which England, reframed now on the extreme left, makes her first important statement pertaining to her reactions to prisoner abuse:
After another camera blink and another reframing, England comes as close as she ever will to explaining her acquiescence. Finally looking directly at us, with her eyes widening for emphasis, she faces the fact of her own acquiescence, saying with more force than anything she has said so far: “I mean . . . it was OK.”
The microphysiognomy of England’s face as revealed in the Interrotron does not dramatically catch her lying, nor does it catch an overt admission of guilt. But her very difficulty phrasing the description of what she saw—”unusual . . . weird . . . wrong”—combined with her initial avoidance and then final acceptance of eye contact when she admits that is was “OK,” illustrates the mind-set that made it possible for such acts of abuse to be understood as “standard operating procedure.” Her face and words reveal that she is neither quite the villain she seemed to be in all the pictures, nor should she be pitied as a misunderstood victim of her circumstances. Rather, she is viewed as an ethical being wrestling with her acquiescence to an unethical situation. If she tries to excuse herself with the notion that “the example” of abuse was already set, she does not excuse herself when her face reenacts the drama of acceptance.
The totality of England’s testimony in the film makes it clear that in her mind the photographs do not so much depict her abuse of prisoners but Graner’s abuse of her. To her, the prisoners are incidental. She had already accepted their abuse as “OK.” She is obviously bitter over her public notoriety for actions she did not herself plan or execute beyond obligingly posing, usually with a smile, in pictures directed by another. England thus cannot see the harm in the photo beyond the harm that being in it did to her. This is her ethical limitation, and the film presents it for us to judge. But perhaps more important than our judgment of her words is that moment when we can see her wrestling with the words wrong and OK as she first looks at, then avoids, then looks again at Morris. The deadness that we see in her eyes is the deadness that comes from having accepted wrong as OK — SOP, standard operating procedure. This is not a smoking gun but rather the subtle kind of “truth” to which this film leads.
In the very first words spoken in the film, the nonmilitary contract interrogator Tim Dugan says, “It was Charlie Foxtrot without a doubt....I never thought that I would ever see American soldiers [pause] so depressed and morale so low.” Charlie Foxtrot is the army’s euphemism for the much cruder term cluster fuck, a “hopeless entanglement of rudderless forces” caused by stupidity and/or ineptitude (202). Though no direct translation of the term is given in the film Charlie Foxtrot/cluster fuck is richly evocative both of cluster bombs—small explosives fired from U.S. aircraft or artillery, easily triggered by civilians who mistook them for food or toys. Designed to do maximum civilian damage—in this case to maim and kill the very people the army was supposedly rescuing from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein—cluster bombs are in their very essence “fucked up.”
Cluster fuck also takes on another, more literal, meaning at a time when the U.S. army was becoming increasingly gender integrated. In this new, supposedly gender-neutral context, men and women were supposed to work side by side. Yet gender neutrality would frequently give way to a hothouse of sexual relations. Although these relations were officially prohibited, they were more condoned than homosexual relations and widely overlooked. This practice of (hetero)sexual partnerships then collided in a “rudderless” way with the very opposite of gender neutrality in the practice of using sexual humiliation, especially through the agency of female MPs to “break down” Iraqi prisoners.
We might say that three ideologies of sex clashed:
At the furthest extreme they would force prisoners to simulate homosexual acts among themselves under the eyes of female soldiers.
Charlie Foxtrot (cluster fuck) thus offers an eloquent description of a highly sexualized chaos reigning at a prison that was taking in more and more prisoners with no idea of what to do with them. Neither soldiers nor prisoners knew what was going on or what their proper role was. On some level a soldier would have had to be blind not to know that the treatment of prisoners was, as England put it, “wrong.” To be part of it was to be part of a cluster fuck that one was supposed to view as “OK.” Just how much a part of it the soldiers became is evident when we consider the most damning photos of the whole fiasco: those of the naked human pyramid and of the forced masturbation taken on the night of 7 November 2003.
Morris orchestrates the narration of this event through the familiar, digitally white-framed photos, but also in a grisly video, itself reframed through masking. We learn through more Interrotron interviews that seven prisoners from a nearby, overcrowded tent prison who instigated a riot in a protest of conditions were delivered to Tier 1A for “isolation and interrogation” on the Military Intelligence block of Abu Ghraib. Since the riot had included the throwing of projectiles that struck a female MP in the face, the MPs in charge of the tier were more eager than usual to take out their anger on detainees. And since sexual humiliation was already on the agenda, it was within the framework of SOP that these photos and videos—the ones that would, as the military prosecutor Brent Pack put it, “seal the fate” of anyone who either took them or was in them—were taken.
The most overt crimes perpetrated on this night by the Abu Ghraib military police were the punching, beating, and jumping on the fingers and toes of the seven transfer prisoners, very little of which was caught on camera. What was caught on camera and what did “seal their fate” was thus not so much actual acts of criminal abuse captured by the camera as it was a kind of ritualistic choreography performed on the bodies of the seven. Before the prisoners were stripped naked, we see Graner’s fist poised to strike one of the seven; we also see the words “I’m a rapeist [sic]” written by Specialist Sabrina Harman with a Magic Marker on the leg of one of the prisoners whose jumpsuit has been ripped open. A bit later (according to the timeline constructed by Pack) we see the various stages of the building of a seven-man human pyramid.
While it would seem that the MPs believed they were setting an example to the unruly rioters, the gunnysack hoods of these prisoners prevented them from seeing anything. So it is unlikely the show was staged to educate the inmates—unless it was the prisoners in the upper tiers. It seems, rather, to have been produced for an imagined spectator above the fray. According to England, when Graner was asked why he was forming the pyramid, he replied that he was doing it to “control them so they’re all in one area.” But as England knew, the prisoners were already in one area; Graner already had control. So, what was Graner thinking? Serving ten years, he was not available to the Interrotron.
That he was staging a spectacle designed to terrify what he had stereotyped and abstracted as a sexually naive “Arab mind” easily offended by the exposed and (homo)sexualized male body seems irrefutable. The seven bodies are stacked on top of one another in a way that emphasizes their vulnerability to anal penetration. This extra vulnerability staged in the massed stacking would seem to be Graner’s own embellishment on the sexualized interrogation techniques already in place at the prison; it is his aestheticized enactment, on the bodies of Iraqis, of a cluster fuck.
Apart from the personal pathologies of a projected homophobia that these images suggest, it seems clear that Graner was constructing a photographable choreography that could be best observed and was frequently actually photographed from above. If the Iraqis in the pyramid could not appreciate the ornamental choreography’s (imperfect and precarious) symmetry or its complex staging of a sexualized hierarchy of bottoms and tops, and if the soldiers composing it and sometimes posing adjacent to it could not either, then the pyramid and the later orchestration of group masturbations seem to have been created for an abstracted camera’s eye more than for any human perspective. These images became part of the so-called metadata that the military prosecutor Pack would later mine for evidence of guilt.
The photos and videos of masturbation seem to have performed a similar function as the pyramid, although these acts were not photographed from above. Again, the seven hooded, naked “rioters” were forced to perform a highly choreographed, (homo)sexualized, and entirely purposeless group action of “masturbating” en masse. England notes that six of them subsequently stopped while one continued, unaware that the others had stopped, for another forty-five minutes. In her interview she involuntarily sniggers at this detail, adding “no joke.” It is possible to recoil at the inhumanity of her laugh. However, it is worth noting that in the public screenings I attended, audiences sometimes laughed uncomfortably along with England. It is further possible that this snigger may itself be a response to Morris’s own facial reaction—raised eyebrow perhaps—to her recitation.
In one of the most infamous photos taken from this scene, England points with one thumb up at the lone Iraqi left masturbating and with the finger of the other hand pointing at his penis, while a cigarette dangles from her mouth. In this photo she performs her job as a female humiliator. Her only crime would seem to be her enjoyment of the scene that Graner has created. In the interview that looks back on this event she continues to find some amusement in the mechanical endurance of this one man who does not know that the others have stopped performing for their jailors. Her testimony restages the crime of sexual abuse, but the present-day snigger invites our uncomfortable complicity at the “joke” of a human body become machine.
Siegfried Kracauer defines the title concept of his famous essay “The Mass Ornament” as a performance that “clusters” bodies in a way that deprives them of individuality. Kracauer’s example is the militarily trained Tiller Girls popular in Germany in the second half of the 1920s. These were scantily clad women performing athletic movements that became abstract designs when seen from above. Though the Tiller Girls wear scant clothes and are posed in erotic positions, Kracauer observes that they are deprived of erotic meaning; at best they can only point to the “locus of the erotic,” to crotches or breasts. Their configurations are described as “indissoluble girl clusters whose movements are demonstrations of mathematics.” These “girl clusters,” which Kracauer compares to the abstract shapes perceived by aerial photography, are the point of departure for his attempt to understand the legitimacy of the pleasurable distractions of popular culture. The admired configuration does not emerge out of the interior of the given conditions but rather, as Kracauer puts it, “appears above them,” bestowing form on a given material (77).
By using the term legitimacy, Kracauer does not mean to praise the aesthetics of the indissoluble girl clusters so precisely staged but to understand the larger social and cultural frame that produces a need for such mass spectacles so entirely without purpose, like Graner’s staging of Iraqi bodies in a human pyramid. As England’s comment on Graner’s motive suggests, the ornament exceeds any goal of “control.” What apparently worried Kracauer about the mass ornament was not so much the frequently cited parallel between the chorus line and the assembly line, but the very question of the mass, of how it might be understood. Was it an inert and mute lump, or might it be animated and speak? In 1927, the date of his essay, Kracauer was attempting to grasp a new domain of body culture and movies as factories for distraction. The extravagant spectacles seen as ornaments from above, ”a pattern of undreamed-of dimensions,” could only be understood by Kracauer as something new—neither quite ballet nor military parade—as something produced by the “rationality” of capitalism.
I do not argue that the torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. MPs that attempted to cluster bodies into a perverse mass ornament is ethically legitimate. Nor do I argue that the rationality of mass-produced capitalism can exculpate actions that are in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. But I do want to argue that to simply judge the crimes committed by these soldiers as either singular or collective sexual perversions is to miss their larger symptomatic value as the consequences of the impossible position into which these ill-trained, inept, and confused jailors were inserted. I want to suggest, in other words, that Graner was the artist of the cluster fuck and that his orchestration unwittingly acted out his own frustration of being fucked on the bodies of Iraqis.
What the human pyramid and masturbation photos most profoundly reveal are grotesque ornaments—crude attempts to fashion “indissoluble” male Iraqi clusters as if they were girls, as if they were sexual objects who could perform on cue at the behest of their jailors. They are much more than individual acts of pathology, but they may not be always clear representational evidence of war crimes. We should not forget that these acts of abuse were part and parcel of the general “Gitmo-izing” of Abu Ghraib, that is, the application of the protocols of Guantánamo to the Iraqi prison. However, it may not be useful to take these pictures—especially the most volatile sexual ones—as evidence of war crimes. What we see in these photos as reframed by Morris is less clear proof of torture and more proof of the ineffective, purposeless, ornamental charade of torture, while the more serious torture—the torture that can kill—remains often, as at Gitmo, beyond the camera’s frame.
The difficulty, of course, is that the humiliation, abuse, and torture are so often enacted as if for the photograph. And, as I have been suggesting, the photograph itself may be a kind of evidence of what lies beyond this frame, both in the case of extenuating circumstances in which the evidence is intended to expose abuse as much as to triumph over an incarcerated enemy. In the case of a symptomology, as in the case of the cluster fuck, the photograph inchoately acts out a sexualized “entanglement of rudderless forces”—a new mass ornament. Thus where Butler argues that the photograph of torture allows the event of torture to continue to happen, I argue that in Morris’s film, the reframing of the event in the context of interviews with the picture-takers and triumphant posers does not allow it to continue to happen. For the first time in the circulation of these images, such a reframing subjects the total situation of the torture to intense interrogation.
Morris’s contextualization and constant reframing of the photos, qua photos, makes it possible for us to realize that the human pyramid and the simultaneously orchestrated masturbations were most likely not the worst or even the true crimes of the U.S. military and “other governmental agencies”—code for the CIA and other groups whose presence in the prison never formed part of the official record and who could thus apparently act with impunity—at Abu Ghraib.
When Susan Sontag wrote not long after their publication that these “photographs are us,” she meant that we as a nation are responsible for what they show: the corruption, waste, and immorality of our occupation of Iraq (26). But I suggest that they are also “us” because we recognize in them a familiar spirit of play, however perverted, that seeks distraction—even something called “fun”—in the very midst of horror. Kracauer writes of the mass ornament:
This disclosure “in distraction,” he adds, “is therefore of moral significance.” What is “legitimate,” then, about the photos framed by this film is that with the aid of the Interrotron Morris makes us see how such photos could have made sense to these soldiers “on the ground” who craved a higher vantage point that would dissociate them from the prisoners with whom they lived. The photos were a legitimate expression of the frustration of their own impotency, their own inability to act successfully as soldiers, their pathetic imitation of “norms” that utterly failed to tell them their duty. Both the framed photos and Morris’s extravagant (re)enactments of what might have occurred are the ornamental cluster fucks of this misguided war
The most important ethical lesson of the film, however, may be to discourage us from judging Harman, England, or any of the cast of characters from any higher ground, as Pack would do and as the military tribunal did. The value of the film, rather, is to have shown us what it was like to be there on the ground aspiring to be somewhere else, somewhere higher.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag argues that pictures cannot provide their own interpretations; they need captions to provide context. This may not be an accurate assessment of all photos, but it seems patently true of these almost too obviously self-incriminating ones of Abu Ghraib. On first seeing these pictures, few people thought they needed further explanations or a frame of reference. In Morris’s film it is the interviews and the imaginative enactments of possible acts that provide the rich captions to complicate each photo.
Judith Butler challenges Sontag, writing that we do not always need a caption to understand that a political background is formulated and renewed through the work of a frame:
This, I argue is what Morris’s film does. It asks us to interpret the interpretation, to witness the witnesses. But it does so not only by citing the photos that so “forcibly” framed these acts of inhumanity but also by reframing and contextualizing them, showing us how very delimited these frames were, how much of “the visual field,” as Butler puts it, is “ruled out” (952).
The photos of Abu Ghraib pointed to and were often themselves evidence of crimes. But they are not the smoking guns they seemed to be. They suggest that “straight photographs” must always be considered in light of what we know about the situation of their taking and that very often, as in the torture-death of al-Jamadi, the real incriminating photo does not exist. Had the military prosecution that focused so intensely only on the little guys pursued the larger “primary framework” that set the conditions for what we see in these pictures, rather than assume, as the Guantánamo alum Pack does, that nakedness and stress positions were to be expected, then we might have gotten to the bottom of the torture that took place under the direct auspices of the “other government agencies.” Such a trial might have discovered whose decision it was to keep prisoners naked and shackled, whose decision it was to hold prisoners indefinitely and drive them to despair. But that would have been another movie.
Links to individual presentations: